Susan Buckland: Familiar face among bures

By Susan Buckland

He looked at me and I looked at him and it was shaping up to be an awkward moment. A flicker of recognition but neither was sure.

I took a punt. "Are you Manasa?"

The tall, distinguished Fijian stepped forward and shook my hand. "I am Manasa. Could you be Susan?"

Hotel staff come and go but, happily, not Manasa. He was the first person to greet me when I had arrived 14 years ago to stay at Yasawa Island Lodge, as it was then called. The small hotel made an immediate and favourable impression. It sat in a garden of palm trees and tropical flowers on the edge of the coral sand and, unlike some Fiji island resorts, looked as if it belonged.

Then there was the courteous, warm welcome from the man called Manasa. He came from Bukawa Village, over the hill. But each day he was to be found somewhere on the premises, helping guests choose flippers and snorkels or pointing out the path to the lookout from which the string of Yasawa islands spread like pearls in the ocean.

At night he would be shaking cocktails behind the bar in the open-sided restaurant. After dinner he would pluck a guitar and sing along with other friends from the village who entertained the guests.

In the morning he would be at the helm again, showing guests to tables with views of shining sea and islands beyond.

There didn't seem to be much Manasa couldn't do to make our lives more pleasant. Best of all, he seemed to take such pleasure in doing so.

He returned to mind when I made plans to return to the island retreat, now called Yasawa Island Resort. The character, I had been assured, remained the same - spacious, private bures metres from the ming blue sea. A few more bures had been added but it was still a small resort where you could feel like part of a family or cocoon yourself in a soothing South Sea Island world of your own. But Manasa, I imagined, had retired to his village after 14 long years.

Bula! The booming greeting this time came from smiling Fijian staff. I scanned their faces, hoping to recognise the man who remained inseparable from happy memories of a Yasawa holiday.

I inquired about him and received the glad tidings. Manasa was still much a part of the place. He was the key point of contact between the resort and the island people.

In fact, it was Manasa who instigated the development of the resort. He saw an opportunity to help his people and negotiated with his village chief on behalf of the developer.

Manasa has played a pivotal role in bringing about educational, health and employment benefits now enjoyed by his people.

The manager explained that Manasa would be back to work the next day, and to look out for him. When the moment arrived I was unsure. The curly head of black hair I recalled from the previous visit was now tinged with grey. The handsome face was older. But the hibiscus behind the ear. And the smile. It had to be Manasa.

We sat and talked like old friends. "Do you remember when I asked you to sing Take the ribbon from my hair and you knew every word?"

"Of course I remember," fibbed the gallant Manasa, who must have sung thousands of songs on request from guests primed with his cocktails.

He has been working from opening day at Yasawa Island Resort. His wife, Wati, works there, too. And he has no plans to stop working. He likes Garth, the owner, and is firm friends with Norm, the original owner. Norm still comes with his family to stay in the house Manasa built for him in his village. His people are happy to sell fish and vegetables to Yasawa Island Resort. The guests love the fresh produce. "And have you noticed how on Yasawa the guests can have several beaches to themselves?"

Yes, Manasa. That I have.

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